“Silence is the perfectest herald of Joy” William Shakespeare
“When from our better selves we have too long been parted by the hurrying world, and droop, sick of business, of its pleasures tired, how gracious, how benign is Solitude.” William Wordsworth
The world’s just spinning A little too fast
If things don’t slow down soon we might not last.
So just for the moment, let’s be still.
The Head and the Heart
It is a cool, overcast early Saturday afternoon, and I am alone without any pressing duty or appointment in front of me the rest of the day. Like an expansive field I just happen upon, the day spreads out before me to the horizon.
I feel vaguely excited as if given the perfect gift at the right time. I settle down at my desk, gaze out my window to the fountain in the backyard pond, and I wait.
It hasn’t always been like this . Time alone, without some activity to occupy me, only made me anxious and restless. I needed to be occupied with something.
As a young father, it was easy to go through days without a moment alone – and even then I would look for something to distract me from the uncomfortable feelings that came with silence and solitude.
Often, when men and women reach forty, something strange begins to happen. It starts with a subtle burn in their insides. Then, there is this vague restlessness, an undercurrent of low-grade dissatisfaction with their present-day situation and with how their life has turned out.
An inner urge follows, welling up from somewhere, to engage in strange and out- of- character activities in an attempt to soothe a vague, but real, internal burn, and to silence this undefinable inner disturbance. It seems they might do almost anything to satisfy this obdurate craving for something not yet known.
Some run away to the wilderness, some take-up Yoga, rock climbing, or cross fit training. Others may become addicted, have an affair, or take up a new lover. Some drop the corporate career and start a small business or hobby, and some buy a Corvette.
Then, some of us head for a monastery.
Although I was raised a Catholic, I had never been in a monastery, nor had I ever met a Monk. And while plenty of nuns taught me throughout my years in Catholic school, I knew little of the cloistered life behind the monastic walls.
My initial introduction began over twenty years ago, while reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography “Seven Story Mountain.” Merton was a Cistercian monk who in the late 1950’s popularized the contemplative spiritual life through his life and writings.
Soon after, I heard of a Cistercian Monastery close by in Conyers, Georgia. My interest kindled by Merton’s own story, I signed up for a ten-day silent retreat–ten days that changed the direction and orientation of my life.
I entered my assigned room at the monastery and set my bags on the small single bed. The ancient term for the monks small living quarters is ‘Cell’.
These earliest monks went out into the desert of Egypt to live a more ascetic life as Christianity became legal and no longer a persecuted religion. They lived in small individual huts, or ‘cells‘ clustered around each other. Hence, they lived alone, together.
My cell was ten by fifteen feet. Along with the single metal-frame bed, there was a small desk, a plain wooden chair, a sink with a mirror and cabinet above, and a small closet. There was a single crucifix on the wall. The walls were cinder blocks painted a light green. I was wondering what my interior designer wife would think of the sparse décor.
“Go to your cell and your cell will teach you everything you need to know” Abba Moses
On the bed was a note welcoming me as a guest, and outlining the times of community prayer and the occasions where speaking was allowed. These times were few and brief – only after breakfast and lunch. A time of ‘Grand Silence’ followed immediately after the supper meal until after breakfast the following day.
I thought of my normal evening routine at home with evening chatter with my wife and children, the business of the evening, the TV or computer capturing so much of my attention every night. What was I to do from 7:00 pm until morning? There was no radio, TV, or computers. I had a few books, my writing notebooks, this little green room, and me.
Thomas a Kempis wrote in his thirteenth century spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ, “Every time you leave your cell you come back less a person”.
Following this same theme, Blaise Pascal, a French philosopher and psychologist wrote, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone”.
Jesus himself said, “When you pray, go into your closet (cell) and close the door, and pray to your Father in secret, and your Father, who sees you in secret, will reward you openly.”
It was in their cell that the monks spent the majority of their time. It was while in their cell that they would struggle with both God and their own demons.
It was in my cell, that for the next ten days, I would grapple with my own shadows; the meaning of my life, if there was another way I should be living, if there is a God who even cares what I do.
It was in this tiny cell in the late night hours that I felt like Jacob wrestling with the Angel – and like Jacob, neither knowing if it was an Angel, or what the outcome would be. Some nights I prayed only for dawn to arrive.
As a guest, I was encouraged to participate in the community prayers each day. The rule of St. Benedict lays out the prayer schedule for the monk. The basis for this schedule comes from Psalms 119:64, “Seven times a day I praise you”.
On my welcome note was the following schedule:
4:00 AM Vigils 6:00 AM Lauds 7:15 AM Terce (breakfast) 11:15 AM Sext (dinner) 1:00 PM None (start of work) 4:30 PM Vespers (supper) 6:35 PM Compline (Grand Silence) 7:00 PM Retire
Outside of these set times of communal prayer, I was on my own to do as I wished for the ten days I was there. Ten days without television, radio, phone (I had given my wife the monastery contact information in case of emergency).
At the beginning , I stayed out of my cell as much as possible. I walked the grounds, the lush farmland, circled the large pond over and over, and browsed the monastic library for hours.
Eventually, though, I became accustomed to my tiny cell. The sparseness of it became comfortable to me. The deep silence, for days and days, began to settle me down into a place I have never experienced. It was like a soft, relentless, rain falling on dry and cracked soil. By the time those ten days were up, I felt a lushness deep down. I did not realize how thirsty my heart had become.
Driving the three-hour trip back home, I was convinced that another dimension of life had been opened up to me. I thought of Jesus, and those scriptures I had known for years–of how He would “steal” away from his active life for hours, sometimes days at a time, to a solitary place. I remembered too, that whenever that happened, some monumental event in his life would follow.
I thought of my family and loved ones, and of what Merton said: “Community will lead me to silence, and silence will lead me to community”.
I also thought of what T.S. Elliot wrote, “Where will the world be found? Where will the world resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.”
That was over twenty years ago. Since then, I have made numerous silent retreats. It has been in times of extended solitude and silence that I have learned if I am to live that abundant life my Lord has promised, I must make room in my life for silence and solitude. As the saying goes, “you cannot pray all the time everywhere, if you do not learn to pray sometime, somewhere.”
Silence and solitude is that place I encounter God. However, I cannot do so in either fear or with discord in my heart.
As Julian of Norwich said, I must trust in my solitude that “All is well, and every manner of thing is well”.
I also must take care of any discord in my heart, and do as Jesus instructed “Therefore if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar. First, go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” Ma 5: 23-24
So I look for silence and solitude—not as an escape from the difficulties of this world, but as the place I prepare myself to enter into this world— not from a place of self-preservation, but from a place of liberty and charity.
I look for those shining pools of solitude that are always presenting themselves to me. I construct my own pools of solitude in the morning and evening, and in so doing I come upon them as surprises in my day—those shimmering moments where I come-to-myself, and in so doing come into the presence of God.
Silence and solitude was once upon a time part of everyday life. Today, the flood of words from talking heads and podcasts blends together into a cacophony of white noise. The result is, I cannot hear that single clear note calling to my soul.
Only with deliberate effort can I hear it. Only in my solitude and silence can I hear my name spoken. Only then, can I know who I am, and who God is.
So, I sit today at my desk, gazing out my window, in this tiny pool of solitude, and I wait.
And I hear a gentle whisper,
Be still and know I am God
Be Still and Know I Am
Be Still and Know
What is your experience with Silence and solitude? How do those times of outer and inner stillness awaken your own heart? Can you hear your own name being called in silence? Take some time this week. Turn everything off, especially your own thoughts, and wait on the Lord.
I would love to hear about it….